Sunday 2nd of August 2020
Opinion

Dazzled in Doha & the allure of Al Shaqab

“It’s the Hollywood of the Equestrian world” are the words Olympic show jumper Pius Schwizer used to describe CHI AL SHAQAB, a dazzling Equestrian show held in Doha.

The Gaitpost’s Ellie Kelly was lucky enough to head out to Doha to rub shoulders with heiresses, Royalty and world number ones and soak in the ambience and sunshine. As well as witnessing some great British performances.

If you could dream up the perfect Equestrian event, the CHI held at Al Shaqab last week was close to that. For starters there’s the competition set in the pleasant Middle Eastern spring sunshine: three disciplines of 5* Showjumping, 5* Dressage and the first major Para-Dressage event since the Rio Paralympics.

Then there are the incredible facilities for horse, rider, groom, owner etc. From air conditioned stables to the very best surfaces, vast arenas, gallop tracks, and an extensive veterinary centre. There is an indoor arena where the roof can peel back – less like Wimbledon centre court, more like NASA space centre. 

This was a glittering carnival in every way. The riders were put up in the 5 star St Regis hotel – the finest address in town. Guests and journalists indulged in something not far off haute-cuisine. Freshly prepared by the St Regis, who sent their head chefs to the venue gave lip-smacking dishes for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. However I am now a wobbling testimony that if you eat baklava and cheesecake with every meal for three days solid, there will be repercussions on the figure front.

The CHI status is a much coveted one and Al Shaqab has definitely earned it. The term “CHI” (which stands for Concours Hippique International) is a significant title awarded by the FEI, to only four competitions worldwide. CHI AL SHAQAB which was first held in 2013, is the only one of its kind in Asia. The event further cements Qatar’s position as a prime sports destination and it has one of the largest prize funds available to riders that is seen in equestrian sport – 500,000 euros alone for the Showjumping Grand Prix. And yes – money talks! So it was hardly surprising to see a surfeit of superstars.

Oh and then throw in some great British performances to lift the patriotic spirits and it’s a hell of a party.

It was another big win for the prolific Scott Brash in the CSI 5* Grand Prix. After jumping a double clear in the first two rounds, the former World Number One was first to go in the jump-off and posted a faultless performance in a time of 45.21. The Grand Prix involved jumping two 1m 60 rounds followed by a jump-off, designed by the world renowned course designer Frank Rotherberger. It was only Scott and the Turkish rider Omer Karaevli who could pull off three clear rounds out of the 41 starters.

Scott, who is a former world number one and double Rolex Grand Slam winner was riding the diminutive Ursula XII. The 16 year old mare is by the stallion Ahorn but was bred in Scotland and has had a long and successful career with Brash. He talks fondly of her and it is clear she holds a place in his heart.

Speaking after his win, Scott stroked her nose whilst we chatted:

“I’m delighted with her and a win here means a lot to me. We had some top riders and fast horses to beat and she answered all the questions.”

His other ride here, Hello Annie seemed erratic during the show and with his wonder horse Hello Sanctos coming to the end of the road, I asked Scott whether there were any other stable stars to take their place.

“Definitely” he confirmed. “It’s exciting, I have some promising young horses coming through including one my father bred that is shaping up really well.”

Personally if I had won the 165,000 euros in prize money I would almost definitely put it towards a Range Rover Sport and a Birkin handbag and that might leave me change for a Butet saddle. Scott clearly doesn’t agree with such frivolity.

“It will go back into the horses” he quipped when I asked him how he would spend his riches.

“With this job it goes very quickly, just on keeping them and travelling from show to show.” Definitely not husband material then!

It was a great show for Spencer Wilton too. Making his first visit to CHI AL SHAQAB, he picked up a decisive victory in the Grand Prix Special with Super Nova II. The Olympic silver medalist presented a stunning test to post an incredible score of 76.608%. Speaking after his win:

“He’s a very special horse. I just have to keep him relaxed. After yesterday this means an awful lot. We had a really tricky ride in the Grand Prix but today he gave me a more confident feeling” he explained.

“I was at Stuttgart for the World Cup and he got really nervous with all the crowds. So I think on the first day he felt on edge but today he was much more confident. And that’s what I wanted to do, just have a more confident end to the show and that is why I chose to do the Special and not the Freestyle. I didn’t want to risk going out and having a difficult ride. With the Special there are not so many distractions and he knows the test.”

I was delighted to hear that even multi-medaled dressage legends forget their dressage tests at times. Whilst Lee Pearson finished second in the Para-Dressage Individual and Freestyle tests with his home-bred mare Styletta, he was let down in the Individual by an error of course. I caught up with him to get his reaction.

“It was dreadful from a rider’s perspective, I forgot the test! It’s a new test and I haven’t ridden those tests even though I “ride” them every night when I’m in bed, cleaning my teeth, when I am in the car travelling here but I still managed to forget. It’s slightly nerves and riding a young horse in such a big environment my mind is everywhere. But she’s only eight years old and she’s very hot and opinionated so I’m pleased with her.”

Pearson was full of praise for the venue:

“It’s unbelievable, if you could lift this and take this anywhere in Great Britain and you could have a national training centre like this, I think our riders could be even more successful than they have been. It’s everything – the infrastructure and all these volunteers and workers but they are just very relaxed. They just want to host a great event.”

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